Mulhall column: Remembering the NFL’s lost soul
NFL football is an entertainment product, or it is now, even if it may not have started out that way.
When I was 8, my dad got me a tailored-for-kids notebook published by the NFL that outlined each team’s coaches, roster and mascot, explained positions and spelled out the NFL/AFL merger — everything a youngster would need to know to get a flavor for the new league.
Back then, Lou Saban was the Bronco’s head coach, and Steve Tensi was the starting quarterback. Syracuse great Floyd Little was entering his second season as the Broncos’ halfback, and for many reasons I didn’t understand and a handful I did, Little was the Broncos franchise.
To say football was different back then is no cliché. Empirically speaking, it’s bedrock.
For one, the average player salary was about $25K annually, and while that was a lot of money back in the day, even adjusted it’s not close to what players make now.
For another, weather was a part of the game. Conditions could and did get nasty. The elements played a role. Sometimes a big one.
For a third, the Broncos practiced off I-25 in a big tent just north of Globeville and west of Commerce City — 5700 Logan, then a view maybe as industrial as any in sight of Long’s Peak could get.
What I read about blue-collar football cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit I filled in with details closer to home, like the acrid reek of Commerce City oil refining, and the booming of braking boxcars that echoed out of the marshaling yards below the 20th Street Viaduct where my grandpa worked. The hardscrabble lives these places represented defined football and football players in a thick-forearmed, greasy denim, Mile-High-south-stands way.
Sports casting was just as rough. By the time TV reception in Glenwood Springs grew robust enough to provide fairly uniform NFL coverage, it was 1970, and Monday Night Football was brand new.
Howard Cosell announced MNF, and former Dallas quarterback Don Meredith provided color. Just a few bars of “heavy action” from our black and white Zenith and I knew it was on. Even if Howard stayed sober enough to narrate half-time highlights, by game’s end, Meredith’s rendition of “The Party’s Over” needed no interpretation.
Lacking any appreciable ability for the game, I never played a down of football after the fifth grade, yet NFL football nevertheless became for me as much of an autumn rite as yellow quakies.
But times change.
Perhaps the success of the rapport-building United Way campaigns in the 1990s led the NFL to think it could become expert in PR crusades like breast cancer awareness pink and diversity color rush. But such efforts to foster good-will haven’t really changed the game the way others have.
While football’s individual athleticism improved, the NFL implemented rules changes and equipment modifications to reduce the number and severity of injuries. Instant replay added veracity to referee calls. TV timeouts captured herculean ad revenues. Regular season expanded to 17 weeks. Sunday Night Football replaced Monday Night Football. Thursday Night Football became a thing. Fantasy football did too. Networks warred over broadcast rights, and more recently athletes began using game day national anthems as stages for their own causes.
Many of these changes seemed like really good ideas at the time. Few met opposition. Yet, somewhere in their midst, the NFL lost its soul.
Last off-season, the Broncos traded away a cornerback who shot himself in the leg outside a strip club. Last month, the Broncos signed a cornerback who once beat up a stripper.
It’s a subtle distinction that’s not unique to the cornerback position.
Sadly, this is no twisted fiction or some sordid Dan Jenkins plot line.
Mostly, though, it is not the storied athletic career of a hall of fame running back like Floyd Little.
It’s fair to say I don’t see NFL football the way I did when I was young, not only because I’ve changed — which I obviously have — but because the NFL has, too.
When it comes to watching the NFL, these days I find it helps to mute Chris Collinsworth and listen instead to Dave Logan over the radio while I cook a decent Sunday dinner and notice from time to time through the kitchen window rust-colored leaves float into the backyard off our big maple, perhaps mingled with a few snowflakes.
In that way, at least I sometimes get a fleeting, distant sense of what the NFL once was.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.